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Republican meeting debates a purity test that Ronald Reagan probably wouldn't like

January 28, 2010 |  1:56 pm

As Republican Party leaders toil amid the abundant sunshine at Waikiki Beachthe pain!  the agony!—one of the questions they must decide is: What makes a bona fide Republican?

A group of conservatives believe they have the answer. The 168 members of the GOP’s governing body are set to take up a resolution Friday that would require party candidates to check the appropriate box on at least eight of 10 issues.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele

Otherwise, forget about receiving any help from the national party.

The policy positions—support for lower taxes, smaller government and gun rights, opposition to same-sex marriage,  government-funded abortion, amnesty for illegal immigrants-- are pretty much in line with mainstream GOP thinking. 

But the idea of a litmus, or purity, test is repugnant to many Republicans; you know, that whole Big Tent thing.

Party Chairman Michael Steele has repeatedly voiced his opposition. "I don't think it is, or should be, the position of the Republican National Committee to sit on high judgment of someone's credentials to be a candidate," Steele told reporters this morning at a news conference.

On Wednesday, about two dozen state party chairmen voted unanimously to oppose the resolution, in a non-binding test of sentiments.

Meantime, behind closed doors—in windowless conference rooms at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, many, many yards from the ocean—efforts are underway to thwart or water down the resolution.

The proposal is dubbed the Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle For Support Of Candidates. That mouthful stems from words former President Ronald Reagan famously uttered, to the effect that a person who agreed with him 80% of the time was someone he considered a friend and ally, not a 20% enemy.  (Hence the 8-of-10 formula.) 

One of those chiefly responsible for Reagan’s political success was longtime advisor Stuart K. Spencer, the campaign consultant who helped propel a washed-up B-movie actor (or citizen-politician, if you please) to the governorship of California, and then on to the White House on the right coast.

Spencer is no fan of the Reagan Resolution.

 “If you’re in the game of outreach, broadening the base of the party, those kinds of things aren’t going to help out,” Spencer said in a phone conversation from his home outside Palm Springs. “If you’re trying to eliminate people from the party and get down to the ‘true believers,’ that’s what you’re doing.”

 Spencer, who serves as an informal advisor to several top Republicans in Washington, is a pragmatist who believes that a party and its candidates need to first win elections before they can make policy. That’s best done, he suggested, through addition rather than subtraction, by building rather than purging party ranks.

 He wouldn’t try to speak for Reagan on the Reagan resolution. But Spencer did say that “based on what I saw him do and what he said, he wouldn’t put those kind of constraints upon the party.”

Something else Reagan said many times, apart from the 80-20 formulation, was that “half a loaf is better than no loaf,” Spencer recalled.

“I don’t think he would be happy with all those self-imposed stringency things…. He might have held his nose a few times. But he believed if you’re a Republican, you back Republicans.”

As for hashing out policy and philosophical differences, “His attitude was, hey, that’s what primaries are for.”

--Mark Z. Barabak

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Photo: Associated Press (Steele, file).